The Hidden in the Desert
Not far from The Hermitage are the remains of what was once a vast industrial site, a desert of collapsing bricks and decaying corrugated iron, piles of rubble, splitting concrete roadways, the remnants of once busy and productive factories. Much of it is now being cleared and converted into another form of wilderness: densely populated high rise luxury apartments. I used to enjoy walking around the old industrial site, especially in the early evening. It was quiet, apart from the sound of the wind blowing through the decayed buildings. It was a place of dull colours, seemingly devoid of life. And yet the dull lifelessness was interrupted in a few places by the miracle of small plants that, somehow, had appeared unplanted in cracks and crevices, and managed to grow in the most desolate environment. Those tiny bursts of brilliant green punctured the fading black, the red-brown of the rust and the bricks, and the dirty grey of the concrete. They, somehow, forced themselves out of the otherwise lifeless environment and struggled towards the sun.
Some years ago I was browsing in a junk shop. I saw a particularly unattractive small painting in a battered, once-bright metallic frame. It looked like a very poor attempt at imitating an icon. But there was something strangely interesting about it. I inquired the price and was quoted a figure that would have been excessive had it been a rare icon. Half-heartedly, I began bargaining. The price dropped dramatically. Even when I was offered the dirty, unattractive, battered object for what was probably a reasonable sum, I hesitated. “Look,” said the dealer, “I’ve had it for years and if you’ll take it off my hands, you can have it for $5.00 – or else I’ll just chuck it out with the rubbish”. Even then I hesitated, assuming that I was going to waste $5.00 on something that I was then going to have to chuck out with the rubbish. But I made the purchase, and took the object home. I did nothing with it for some months, feeling more than a little embarrassed to have it in my home where icons of great beauty were to be found. Eventually, I took it to my antique restorer, assuming that he would laugh and give me (yet another) lecture on not being cheated by crooks peddling religious wares. Which was precisely what he did. “If you want to throw good money after bad,” he said with a clear sense of impatience, “I’ll try and clean it up a bit.” Of course, that was the challenge – and I told him to do just that. When he telephoned me a week later he was less dismissive. “You’ve had a bit of luck here” he said. And I returned to find the battered, dirty, unattractive object had been revealed to be a particularly beautiful Russian icon of the Holy Trinity. The filth and accretions of the ages removed, the decay and neglect and misuse cleaned away, the multiple layers of cheap, yellowed varnish carefully eliminated – and the beauty of the underlying image was revealed in all its glory. For the antique restorer, this was about having bought a bargain on which some profit might now be made. For me, it was a profound lesson in Orthodox theology: the likeness must not be confused with the image.
My father grew up in a goldmining town in the desert. When I was young he used to take me there for holidays and I acquired a schoolboy interest in gems and minerals. One day when we were wandering round a desolate area searching for specimens a wild-looking man carrying a shotgun appeared, quite literally, from a hole in the ground. He ordered us off his claim. My father placated him by saying: “My boy’s interested in rocks.” For rest of the day the eccentric miner guided us to find “rocks for the boy”. He’d dig up small lumps of what looked baked mud, and hit them with his hammer. As they split, so was revealed the extraordinary beauty of brightly coloured minerals and gemstones like agate. Some of these still adorn my bookshelves. Lumps of dirt in the desert sand concealed the brilliant glory of God’s creation to be revealed by a wild man with a hammer.
Some time ago I spent several years working with an indigenous community in semi-arid lands. An elder offered to take for a walk. At one point, in the midst of sand and dust, he stopped and pointed to the ground before us. “You know what that is?” he asked. The obvious answer was: a patch of desert dirt no different than the miles of desert dirt around us. I said I didn’t know. “Isn’t it obvious?” he responded. I must have looked confused. “You white fellas, you don’t know anything” he said and laughed. “It’s a water hole.” My untrained mind associated water holes with water and holes, not with indistinguishable patches of flat sand. “I’ll show you” he said as he dropped to his knees and began digging with his hands. About nine inches into the dirt water began to flow. He laughed even more. “Reckon you’d survive out here?” It was not a question I needed to answer because the answer was all too obvious. He took water into his hands and drank. “It’s good,” he said. “You try it.” And it was good indeed, strangely sweet and wonderfully cool. After he’d covered the small hole with sand we set off again. On our return journey he suddenly stopped. “We’re back at the water hole” he said. “Your turn to dig.” His wide smile and generous laughter made it clear he knew, as well as I knew, that I had no idea where the water was to be found. The desert is not a place without water, but a place in which water is hidden. Some know where to find it; most of us don’t.